Only the most naive observers would be surprised by the verdict from an Israeli court on the civil case brought by the parents of Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in 2003 at the hands of the Israeli military. The court ruled this week that Israel was not responsible for the death of the 23-year-old student, referring to it as a "regrettable accident" that Corrie herself could have prevented by staying out of the area. But while this latest official Israeli whitewashing is not unexpected, it does raise important questions about the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and how far Israel can go in dealing so cavalierly with inconvenient Americans -- and, indeed, with the United States.
Corrie's story has become a case study of the impunity with which the Israeli political and legal system treats its adversaries. She was in southern Gaza during the Second Intifada with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization that stages nonviolent protests against the Israeli occupation and was then engaged in a campaign to protect Palestinian wells and homes from destruction. She was killed when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she was trying to protect the home of a Gazan pharmacist, Samir Nasrallah. The official Israeli investigation claims that the whole thing was a dreadful accident and that she had been killed by a blow to the head by a hard object, "probably a slab of concrete which was moved or slid down."
Israel's official autopsy of her death has never been released, but Human Rights Watch says the report concluded she was killed by blows to her chest, fractures of her ribs and vertebrae, and tears in her right lung. Such injuries are consistent with the damage that might be caused to a person by a bulldozer -- contradicting Israel's version of the story.
The Israeli investigation added that she had placed herself and others in danger by being in a combat zone and that she was essentially responsible for her own death. This claim was echoed by the court, and its ruling was blasted out to the public by Ofir Gendelman, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted that because the "tragic accident took place during 'combat activities in war' … the state is therefore not responsible."
The U.S. government has gone on record with its dissatisfaction with the official Israeli narrative, on which the court verdict was almost entirely based. "For seven years, we have pressed the government of Israel at the highest levels to conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of the circumstances of her death," U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro recently complained. However, he added, Israel considers "this case closed."
The only thing unusual about this whitewash is that the victim is an American. Israeli courts and investigations have a longstanding history of either covering up abuses against Palestinians, foreign activists, and journalists in the occupied Palestinian territories, or imposing only symbolic and pro forma penalties on military personnel found to have engaged in misconduct. And unfortunately, the U.S. government has proved itself willing to offer little more than highly attenuated criticisms of Israeli actions when they result in the death of Americans perceived to be siding with Palestinians.
Another such incident was the killing of Turkish-American Furkan Dogan, who was shot five times by Israeli troops during the storming of the Mavi Marmara during the Gaza flotilla raid on May 31, 2010. Again, the United States expressed official concern but did nothing to hold Israel accountable or ensure that Israel held its forces accountable.